“When God is Not Enough”

May 27, 2018
Jonathan Rumburg
I Samuel 8:1-22

 

Introduction

 

This Memorial Day weekend we remember those who served and died, especially those who died in active military service.  This includes our American colonist ancestors who fought a long and hard war to rid themselves of rule by the English king, setting up our government as a democratic constitutional republic instead of a monarchy.

Yet today, we seem fascinated by the British royals.  If you Google “British Royals”, you’ll find among the top results are articles with titles like “Why are we still so obsessed by the British royals?”

According to these articles, our obsession with the British monarchy has its roots in our general interest in celebrities who are famous for being famous, the Cinderella story that was Princess Diana, all of which continues with William and Kate and last weekend with Harry and Megan.

Be that as it may, our attraction to the British royals doesn’t mean we actually want a monarchy in the United States.  No genuflecting for us!

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          That we are a republic with democratically elected leaders—not an absolute monarchy— may make it difficult for us to relate to the Israelites in our Old Testament reading, which tells the story of a people who want a king.

The Israelites are pressing the prophet-priest Samuel to anoint a king for them.  After all, every nation around them has a monarchy.  They want one, too.

And why?  Just look at context and history.

From the Exodus— when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt—to the time of Samuel, a period of about 220 years, the Israelites had understood themselves as a loose confederacy of tribes with no king, only God.

Throughout that time, God called human leaders to take the reins as needed— first Moses, then Joshua, then the judges, with Samuel being one of them— and, as it turns out, the last.

Apparently, the Israelites had come to the place where they decided that when it came to governance, God was not enough.  And that is a concept we can relate to because sometimes life pushes us toward that conclusion as well.  When life gets tough, we want and need something a little more tangible.

Move 1

In our text for today we are reminded that Samuel had two sons and when he became old, he made them judges over Israel.

This suggests that Samuel, for all his usual obedience to God, was acting on his own, not waiting for God’s direction, by instituting a hereditary line of succession.  The people quickly realized this was a bad situation.

As the biblical narrator tells us, Samuel’s “…sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.” (v. 3)

So the tribal elders gathered, came up with a plan and approached Samuel, asking him to give them a king to govern them.

Samuel in turn sought God’s advice in prayer, and God told Samuel that while their demand was a rejection of God, Samuel should do as they wanted.

So Samuel first spells out for the elders the downside of royal leadership, listing the abuses that usually come when someone has absolute power.  But the people were adamant, and so under God’s direction, Samuel anoints Saul, the son of Kish, from the tribe of Benjamin, to be their king.

The people got what they wanted.

Move 2

As Christians, we view God as our ultimate leader and try to apply our faith in God across the board spectrum of our lives.  But we may also find times when it seems God is not enough for the pain, loss or grief life brings.

There is a story often told in Christmas sermons to illustrate the Incarnation of God in Christ.  It’s about a little girl who became frightened during a thunderstorm.  She cried out for her mother, who came to comfort her.

The mother attempted to comfort her daughter, saying, “Don’t worry, dear.  God will take care of you.”

The frightened daughter, exasperated, answered, “But I want somebody with skin!”

The little girl is saying, “An invisible God is not enough to deal with the fright I’m feeling.”

Have you ever thought something like that when facing the pain of being human?  “I have troubles and pain, and the church tells me all I need is God.  But I’ve prayed and prayed about my trouble and pain and its all still here.”

Such a statement is a way of saying sometimes God isn’t enough.  And yes, we may feel uneasy saying so, but it’s how we sometimes feel.  It’s sometimes true.

The issue, says author Grace Pennington, “It’s not that statements like ‘God is enough’ aren’t true.  They are true.  But the problem is that such claims are vague.  Why?  Because our ‘need’ is ambiguous.  For example, we can say we need God’s help, but we can also say we need food or need a break, and we’re talking about very different things.”

Pennington continues, saying, “Our hearts are ‘need-factories,’ and we are told that Jesus is the answer for them all.  It’s as though we spend our days carving hollows into our hearts—hollows that are shaped just to fit the objects of our necessities and desires.  But knowing God is all we need doesn’t abate the inner longings for: a happy marriage, a time of rest, fellowship or more money.  The holes still feel empty.  And their emptiness weighs us down.”

Pennington goes on to tell of her own feelings, writing, “I can sometimes get angry with God when this emptiness is particularly heavy—then of course I feel guilty for my anger.  After all, God is all I need!  Then a half-realized panic starts to creep in, and I wonder, ‘Is God really enough?’  The answer to that question comes when we realize God isn’t liquid.  God doesn’t exist to fill the holes we manufacture in our hearts.  God is a solid—God is God’s own shape, rather than taking on the shape of that which he inhabits.”

          Pennington then points out in Ezekiel, “God tells us he will remove the heart of stone from us and replace it with a heart of flesh.  Our hearts aren’t meant to be hard, hollow receptacles for God to fit himself into.”

Finally, Pennington concludes, “It’s not about [God] being enough to fill our needs anymore; it’s about God being more than enough, filling us in ways we didn’t expect or know we needed.”

That’s a faith-filled conclusion.  Truly.  But I can’t help but wonder, when we’re in pain, how do we get to that conclusion?

How do we allow God to fill us?  Is it by making demands of God?

The answer is, I think, in a combination of God’s “enough-ness” and the skin the little girl asked for.

Move 3

In the aftermath of the terrible tragedy last November in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where a gunman opened fire on a worshiping congregation in a small Baptist church, killing 26 and wounding 20, Christianity Today published an article citing research that shows, “People of faith, particularly those who receive support from their churches and religious communities, fare better in their recovery.”

The article continues: “After a mass shooting, people who felt supported by their religious communities ultimately experienced fewer symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and their faith didn’t suffer as much.  Researchers found that after a mass shooting, similar to what studies show in the wake of natural disasters, ‘religious support buffers the damaging relationship between resource loss and negative outcomes.’  That means, even when the suffering is greater, survivors with high levels of support from their faith communities don’t show the level of worsening symptoms experienced by people without such community.”

Surely, this is saying God’s people are the ones who put the skin on God’s sufficiency—on God’s “enough-ness”.  Meaning, when we are in pain, letting our faith community minister to us is where we learn from experience that God is enough.  As the research cited in the article pointed out, “Looking to God for strength, support and guidance and experiencing God as ‘ever-present help in trouble’ (Psalm 46:1) is associated with less anxiety and depression, as well as greater meaning and psychological stability.”
When God is not enough, the community of God, and God’s people, make it enough.  It all reminds us and assures us that in the dimmest times of our lives we are not alone, we are not abandoned, we are not without hope.

And that can be enough.

Conclusion
When we’re questioning whether God is enough, it may be because we’re thinking of this enough-ness as total solutions to our problems.  That’s what the Israelites in our text were doing.

If we just had “this”, all would be fine.

If we just could do “this”, all would be fine.

If we just had a “king”, all would be fine.

But consider this:

Author Anne Lamott is a single mother who found her way to Christ after several years of drug and alcohol abuse.  A great part of what enabled her to embrace the Christian way and continue to live it was the support and love she found from members of a small church she started attending—people who put the skin on God’s “enough-ness.”

Even after coming to Christ, Lamott’s life was not easy, but she experienced the help of Christ through the friendships and prayers of those faithful people.

Regarding this, she wrties, “It’s funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience.  But when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools— friendships, community, prayer, conscience, honesty— and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do.  And mostly, against all odds, they’re enough.”

Indeed, they are, through God, enough!

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          In the dimmest of times, in the storms of life, God, the church, the community it offers can be enough.

May we remember this enough-ness.

May we embody this enough-ness.

May we share this enough-ness.

May we invite others into this enough-ness.  Amen.

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